Nobel Peace Prize nominee Father Pedro Opeka declined an opportunity to play professional soccer in his native Buenos Aires. He chose instead to become a missionary and live in one of the poorest countries in the world. The son of a bricklayer, he convinced destitute families living in Madagascar’s largest landfill that he could teach them how to build their own houses and, in the process, build their dignity. After 30 years of construction, fighting increasing poverty and political instability, Opeka has created a highly functional city within this dysfunctional African nation. His mission is to prepare the children he saves to one day save their own country.
Winner of the Best Documentary Award at the London Independent Film Awards, Best World Documentary at the Harlem International Film Festival, and more, director Cam Cowan’s Opeka (2020) focuses on the life and service of one of our generation’s most inspirational leaders. The Fandor team was honored to speak with and learn more from the film’s titular, Father Pedro Opeka.
Spanning over thirty years, you have had the opportunity to both see entire communities grow for decades and watch as individuals within the communities grow. What has it been like to see the changes in the lives of these individuals from childhood to adulthood over the past thirty years?
I am extremely happy to see whole families, children who have changed and started a new life. In the past, they were living in the street begging or in the landfill going through garbage searching for something to sell and earn for their day.
Changing was very difficult and 80% of the families have managed to achieve success.
A person who has lived for so long in extreme poverty has become accustomed to misery. Breaking this chain that oppressed them is a daily struggle and it has been a long road that only God has been a witness to over those 32 years.
We stayed with these forgotten people in times of joy and in times of illness or death. From that, they understood that we really love them.
We have never accepted that children live in an inhumane situation. We have always rebelled against this fatality.
And we have demonstrated that extreme poverty can be overcome with love, strong will, perseverance, common sense, organization and hard work. It is through education and work that we can eradicate poverty.
Of many compelling moments of the film, one of the most moving is the way children join you hand-in-hand throughout the film. Can you describe the way in which building homes, schools, and communities impacts a child’s future?
One of the things that is very moving to me about Akamasoa is seeing children becoming children and being children. When you respect and love children, they immediately feel this respect. Their mothers tell their children: “That is the Father Pedro who helped us”. And children are no longer afraid to approach a white person. Children welcome you with spontaneity and tenderness when they feel that you are there to serve and help them. There is not a time when I go through our villages without children running to meet me and following me wherever I go. Eventually they have become my most precious and secure bodyguards.
Holding hands is a habit in the country. When a child gives you his hand, he stays with you, he follows you everywhere in the Villages. And when the parents see the love that their children have for you, then they also accept you with a lot of friendship and trust!
As a result, the work that we do with the parents is happening at a deeper level and is more real, since they are convinced that you love their children and that you really want them to have a more dignified and better future than what their parents have.
Building houses is the beginning of the emancipation of the family. In their house, they feel at home and they help each other as is the custom in Madagascar. When they used to live in the streets, it was every man for himself. Solidarity did not exist since it was a matter of survival.
In our Villages we have built dozens of primary, junior high and high schools and this has created a new mentality in our community whereby everyone shows respect to one another, everyone helps one another, and everyone is concerned with the future of their children and have discovered that they are responsible, that they have the duty to raise and educate them.
In the film, you had mentioned that each village had a field to allow for the community to practice sports. How have sports, particularly football/soccer, played a role in your life and what role do they play in the lives the members of the villages?
Sport is very important in the Villages of Akamasoa. A human being needs to move, to relax, to have fun in the healthiest way possible. Sport has always helped me to surpass myself, to make efforts, to struggle in life, to never give up and move forward together with a team.
Sport is an important teacher of life. This is why we have in each village football pitch, a basketball court, track for athletics, volleyball court, rugby field, etc.
All these categories of sport are also practiced by girls, who previously did not play sport here at all. We are proud today to have an under-18 girls’ basketball team which was champion of the capital city, Antananarivo, two years ago! As such, for girls, sport is also very important and in all our schools we have sport and physical education and we often win competitions competing with other schools. In the past, we often came in last but today, our young sportsmen and sportswomen are much feared.
In moments of hardship, what has kept you motivated throughout decades of service to Madagascar?
Difficult times are part of my every day. In a day, I experience all sorts of hardships and drama that we can write a book with 10 chapters with what we go through in a single day.
What gives me the strength to continue fighting are the children; they are innocent, they did not ask to be born in a landfill or in the street.
But someone has to reach out to them and help them have a more dignified and more humane life. It is our duty as human beings to rescue and help our fellows. Also, if I say I have faith in God, I must love my neighbor. And if I have given my life to Christ, to follow and imitate him, then I must also help the poorest. I know that Jesus had a difficult life and even though he did what was good, he was persecuted and then killed. The Love of God is stronger than death and all the difficulties in life. I am convinced that if I respect people, and if I am sincere and true with them, they will respect me and follow me in this commitment to change our Villages into places of brotherhood and mutual aid and sharing. We can create in the places where we live an “oasis” of hope wherever we are, whatever the country we are in in the world.
All human beings are sensitive to love, justice, respect, solidarity and brotherhood.
The theme of hope is present throughout the entire film. How do you think hope changes a community?
We cannot live without hope. Otherwise we would only be soulless beings, amorphous and insensitive. Hope is not a word, nor is it a concept; it is a daily struggle, it is a commitment with those who suffer. It is to live something deep and true with those around you. We talk a lot about hope and we forget to live it and apply it in our everyday life, in the work we do.
When the community sees that you are doing and living what you are saying, while living amongst them every day, suffering and persevering, then they start to believe in it and adopt this struggle and convince their families and friends to adopt this struggle for a better life and think about the future of their children! A community that has hope is a joyful community. Hope produces joy. And without joy, there is no hope! This is why in our Villages there is joy!
What do you hope viewers will learn from watching Opeka?
That poverty is not inevitable, that we can conquer misery, that we can together conquer egoism and the each man for himself attitude. We must become again brothers and sisters to one other, We must know better how to share the riches that God has given us. The excess riches that we have, we must share with those who have not had the same luck as we did. We want people who see this film to be able to say to themselves, “I can do something in my neighborhood where I live!” We have to start to do something, to dare, to take the risk and reach out to people who are suffering and who are excluded from society. There is always something that we can do, but this we must do as a team and with respect; with the greatest humility and discretion. We are helping a human being who has the same dignity as we do and who has not had the same luck as we did.
We must act and rise-up against blatant injustices. But not with violence which will do nothing but breed more violence; but with love, courage and perseverance. We started the Akamasoa solidarity movement without any money but with enormous love!
Money came later as we built the City and the schools of Akamasoa.
What would you say to someone looking to help communities and nations in the way you have helped Akamasoa?
I would advise that person to start helping, uniting with and loving the people where she or he lives.
You must not think that you have to go to some faraway places to do good; you can do that in your own neighborhood, in your own country. When I left Argentina on August 20, 1968 on a boat, I cried as I left my parents, brothers, sisters, friends, but I had a joy in my heart as I set out to travel the world where I needed to relearn everything – where I needed to be completely re-born. I had to learn new tradition, new culture, new languages in order to communicate and convince others about new life model.
What are your plans for the future?
We have created a City and as we know, a City never stops growing. Every year, we have to build hundreds of housing units, new schools, water supply infrastructure, maternities, health clinics, provide power to houses with solar panels, provide sanitation, roads, sports infrastructure, expand our cemeteries to have more that the 4 burial grounds that we already have now! etc. We are not running out of projects, but we are short of financing. Large international organizations have too complicated procedures to be in a position to help us and when they do, the aid often arrives after 2 or 3 years. This is why, every year, I travel to several countries to speak to individuals to testify to the work that we are doing, and people listen and re-act immediately upon hearing about the work that we do and the struggle we are facing. I never come home empty handed because people have a heart and want to help those who love their children and want to have better lives. At Akamasoa, we have always said that we must help those who work. I see with my own eyes how women and men work so hard in the Akamasoa granite quarry and for them I will go to the end of the world to demand justice!
Opeka is coming exclusively to Fandor on 10/22. Start streaming on Fandor today.
Looking to get involved?
Sohei Productions has created MadaKids.org, a U.S. charitable organization dedicated to helping children and their families in Madagascar by contributing to Father Pedro Opeka’s Akamasoa Humanitarian Association (“Akamasoa”). This is the only U.S. charity for Akamasoa endorsed by Father Pedro.